White ibis on high

The ibises got to the tree first. The egret was late to the game.

Something disturbed these wading birds in the shallow waters where they were feeding on Monday at Savannas Preserve State Park. It may have been me, though I wasn’t very near them. I zoomed in to get these photos.

This is what it looked like when they all took off. I was the only person out there. It would be odd if I had spooked them, when ibises especially don’t seem to mind people.

There was a prescribed burn in this part of the Savannas recently.

White Ibises on a burnt tree trunk, the lone perching spot at the edge of wetlands. Their curved pink bills are distinctive.

The Great Egret gave up and flew on.

White Ibis are…

One of the most numerous wading birds in Florida, and common elsewhere in the southeast. Highly sociable at all seasons, roosting and feeding in flocks, nesting in large colonies. When groups wade through shallows, probing with their long bills, other wading birds such as egrets may follow them to catch prey stirred up by the ibises.

From this high spot they got a good look at things and soon decided to go back to the shallow waters.

The last bird was joined for a few moments by a Boat-tailed Grackle.

I find grackles and crows

This grackle is like a centerpiece in a cabbage palm bouquet.

Blue-black with a tinge of green, I love the iridescence of a male grackle’s feathers.

Female grackles are dark brown and smaller than the males. They go about their business, foraging with focus, while the males flash around, calling, and stirring up trouble.

This male grackle is pestering a crow who is working to get a peanut out of its shell.

I find grackles and crows under in the east causeway park, under the Ernest P. Lyons Bridge between Sewall’s Point and Hutchinson Island. I was there yesterday. It’s close to home and I wanted to grab a few bird photos before the front passed through.

Looking north into a coming storm. It’s a busy park on weekends, in good weather. People fish here, have picnics, launch boats at the ramp, or go kitesurfing off the narrow beach.

Chubby gull.

The black band on its yellow bill identifies this as a Ring-billed Gull. There are more of them here in winter. They breed elsewhere, in summer.

A study in coastal grays. (That’s the Jensen Beach Bridge, further north in the Indian River Lagoon.)

Adults are clean gray above, with a white head, body and tail; their black wingtips are spotted with white. They have yellow legs and a yellow bill with a black band around it. Nonbreeding adults have brown-streaked heads. 

Why do I think these are Boat-tailed Grackles? The other two species in North America are Common Grackles and Great-tailed Grackles.

Great-tailed and Boat-tailed have long tails like the bird above, but Great-tailed are not found in Florida. Common Grackles are smaller, with shorter tails, and they favor open fields, lawns, towns, but not marsh or saltwater areas.

When you smell saltwater on the East Coast, it’s time to look out for Boat-tailed Grackles. The glossy blue-black males are hard to miss as they haul their ridiculously long tails around or display from marsh grasses or telephone wires. The rich, dark-brown females are half the size of males and look almost like a different species. Boat-tailed Grackles take advantage of human activity along our increasingly developed coast, scavenging trash and hanging out in busy urban areas away from predators.

Of course crows also take advantage of human activity, like this one that has scavenged a peanut. The male Boat-tailed Grackle is on the left and Fish Crow is on the right. Crows are a bit larger than grackles, with a thicker bill and duller black feathers.

I know it’s a Fish Crow rather than an American Crow mostly because I learned a general rule from local birders that all crows east of Route 1 in this area are Fish Crows and I heard this one’s nasal call and saw it fluff its neck feathers like a raven.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: How do you tell a Fish Crow from an American Crow?

All my Fish Crows. All my Boat-tailed Grackles.

eBird: Grackles – Are you getting them right?

From scrub to swamp at Seabranch Preserve

We went for a walk at Seabranch Preserve State Park. Is it weird that I think this landscape is beautiful? There was a controlled burn not many years ago.

“Sand pine scrub” is the name of this now-rare habitat, found on the ridges of ancient sand dunes along Florida’s central and southern Atlantic coast and in a small stretch along the Gulf Coast.

Watch out for prickly pear cactus along the narrower trails.

The scrub is a xeric plant community, very dry, though it rains as much here as everywhere else in subtropical Florida.

The habitat generally consists of open pinelands with an understory of various oaks, shrubs, and palmetto. The sandy soil is unable to hold water so rainfall and nutrients leach down through the sand, leaving a dry, nutrient-poor substrate. There is little or no silt, clay, or organic matter in the soil which is often called “sugar sand” because of its fine texture and light color.

It was a cold day on Thursday but the sun was warm in the late afternoon. We went out on the southern loop through the park. There are 8 miles of trails in total.

A rare silver variety of saw palmetto was calling out to be photographed.

I think this flowering plant is called sandhill wireweed, also known as largeflower jointweed. It’s a Florida native.

After I gaze at the beauty of this flower and its surroundings, I go home and my neighborhood yards seem a bit cluttered and “busy” with their layers of hedges and geometric shrubs, imported tropical plants, bright colors and thousand shades of green.

I would like to walk out my front door onto a sandy pathway past stunted pines and scrub oaks and a few scruffy wildflowers.

At the southern end of the park the trail bends around, heading in the direction of the Indian River Lagoon, then descends just enough that the scrub gives way to a “baygall community” of plants at the edge of a mangrove swamp, named for the loblolly and sweetbay trees and gallberry holly that grow there.

My 6’1″ husband poses, for size.

Baygall community from The Florida Natural Areas Inventory (FNAI) is “slope or depression wetland with peat substrate; usually saturated and occasionally inundated; statewide excluding Keys; rare or no fire; closed canopy of evergreen trees; loblolly bay, sweetbay, swamp bay, titi, fetterbush.”

I think the trees are loblolly bay?

Loblolly-bay (Gordonia lasianthus), also called holly-bay, gordonia, and bay, is a small to medium-sized evergreen tree or shrub found in acid, swampy soils of pinelands and bays on the Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plains.

Me for size (5’5″). You can see a burned trunk of a palmetto to the right, where fire-controlled scrub gives way to a lusher place.

The trail gets narrow, a bit mucky and damp (and it’s the dry season) and I sort of wished I had a stick for poking ahead of me and warning the snakes that I was coming. (We didn’t see any.) Cool moist air flows out from the plant-shade.

Lavender tasselflower, another Florida wildflower you probably won’t find in anybody’s tidy front yard. It’s also known as Flora’s Paintbrush and Cupid’s Shaving Brush. Give me a bouquet for Valentine’s Day!

(He doesn’t look like he needs to shave.)

We saw evidence of wild hogs, where they root around and leave muddy shallow holes, but not as much as we see at the Savannas Preserve. I’ve never see one “in person.”

Finally, a bird!

When we were almost back to the trailhead, I found a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.

This is a bird I know, a fairly common winter visitor here. I recognized the bird’s call before I saw it… “The nasal, wheezy, rambling song and insistent, squeaky calls are great first clues to finding them, particularly as these tiny birds can get lost in the generally taller habitats used in the eastern part of their range.”

The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher‘s grayish coloring and long tail, as well as the way it mixes snippets of other birds’ repertoires into its own high, nasal songs, have earned it the nickname “Little Mockingbird.

This one is perched (for a brief moment) on a sand live oak, Quercus geminata, a common tree in Florida’s scrublands. The bird quickly resumed its hunt for tiny insects and spiders, and we went home for dinner.

Birds and beyond

This Limpkin was taking a break from being a wading bird poking around in the mud for apple snails to get a different perspective on the world.

I was taking a break from social media and blogging but now I am back to blogging.

I’ve been visiting parts of the Savannas Preserve a lot lately, where I’ve started to wonder about and photograph things besides just birds.

This shrub is common along the trail that runs north off Jensen Beach Boulevard. It has flowers that remind me of the wild blueberry plants in our old New Hampshire backyard, but pink instead of white.

I signed up for iNaturalist in early January, where I can upload photos and get suggestions and help identifying any living thing.

I learned this is Lyonia lucida, also known as fetterbush lyonia, hurrahbush and staggerbush. It’s found in shrubby bogs, savannas and swamps of the coastal plain of the southeastern U.S. They are members of the Ericaceae family, the heath or heather family that includes blueberry, cranberry, rhododendron and more.

It’s called fetterbush because it grows thick and tangly and can restrict or fetter the passage of humans and animals. Saw palmetto does a good job fettering passage as well.

Here’s another plant that likes moist, acidic soil: the pink sundew, Drosera capillaris. So strange, and beautiful, and … carnivorous!

Sundews lure, capture and digest insects using the sticky, gluey substance mucilage that looks like dew.

Here’s gallberry, Ilex glabra, with fruits and flowers located helpfully close together for the amateur i-naturalist seeking to identify this species of holly.

It’s a coastal plain plant also known as inkberry, found in sandy soil around edges of swamps and bogs. In late fall when it was very rainy, this whole area of the Savannas Preserve was underwater for weeks. Now we are in the dry season, though shallow ponds and boggy spots remain.

This is the trail that runs north from the small parking area off Jensen Beach Boulevard and was mostly underwater. It’s a soothing vista, just walk along the wide footpath in warm sunshine.

All photos are from this trail except for the limpkin, which was near the side entrance to the Savannas off Green River Parkway.

Striped and fuzzy.

In my pre-amateur naturalist phase (a few weeks ago) I would have glanced at this insect, maybe photographed it, and said, “A bee, cute.” But I wanted to know what kind of bee it was so I posted it to iNaturalist.

It was quickly identified as a Northern Plushback FLY, Palpada vinetorum. I guess it does have eyes and wings more like a fly, now that I really look at it.

Here I have been all this time crashing through the natural world like a dumb, half-blind giant, thinking I’m looking at “bees” when some are really flies and even a child knows they are different creatures. I am surrounded by a multitude of species I never knew existed.

This is a Sensitive Plant, Mimosa pudica, in the pea/ legume family. The leaves close up when you touch them, and at night. The flowers are like little pink fireworks.

Of course I also think of the flower in Dr. Seuss’s book Horton Hears a Who. On the flower is a tiny speck of dust, which is also an entire planet for the small (but loud) creatures called Whos.

What a pretty fungus this is, growing on the burnt trunk of a saw palmetto after a controlled burn a few years ago… beauty among the ruins.

It’s in the genus Trametes, in the Bracket fungi family, not sure the species. But it would be terrible to know everything, right?

Three little birds

I leaned back in a chair on the patio, looked up, and waited for a bird to come into the sunny spot overhead. Lights, camera, action… Palm Warbler.

When the sun first hits the tree tops is the best time to see and hear the variety of small songbirds arriving for the winter, or passing through on their way further south.

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are familiar winter visitors – easy to hear, harder to see.

A tiny, long-tailed bird of broadleaf forests and scrublands, the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher makes itself known by its soft but insistent calls and its constant motion. It hops and sidles in dense outer foliage, foraging for insects and spiders. As it moves, this steely blue-gray bird conspicuously flicks its white-edged tail from side to side, scaring up insects and chasing after them.

The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher’s grayish coloring and long tail, as well as the way it mixes snippets of other birds’ repertoires into its own high, nasal songs, have earned it the nickname “Little Mockingbird.”

The Northern Parula “hops through branches bursting with a rising buzzy trill that pinches off at the end.”

The warblers are in my yard because of the laurel oak and all the tasty insects and arachnids it hosts. The tree has a tendency to shed many little leaves, even more so at this time of year. But sweeping is a small price to pay for happy warblers and happy warbler watchers.

Listen: Three Little Birds, Bob Marley

A visit from a Wood-Pewee

This little gray bird was perched on the hammock stand in our backyard, between short flights to catch insects on the wing. It was there for about 20 minutes on Monday morning and didn’t seem to mind me watching, first from behind French doors, then from the edge of the yard with my old Canon superzoom I had grabbed from a dark closet corner.

At first I thought it was an Eastern Phoebe. But after I posted the photo to Facebook a friend helped me ID this as an Eastern Wood-Pewee. The contrast on the wing bars and the pale loral patch between the eye and beak are pewee clues. Also, phoebes bob their tails almost constantly. I did not observe that with this bird.

Blogging has been light overall this year and I took a total break from bird photos and blogging since July. But since my curiosity has been sparked by this little flycatcher’s visit, I decided to open up the blog again and record this bird, which is #224 on my blog life list.

From Cornell Lab of Ornithology…

The Eastern Wood-Pewee’s plaintive song of three sliding notes (pee-a-weeeee) is distinctive and easy to learn. It makes finding these woodland birds fairly straightforward. It helps that male Eastern Wood-Pewees are inveterate singers, belting out song nearly throughout the day. Look for small, olive-colored birds making sallies and watch such birds until they perch; Eastern Wood-Pewees pause frequently after sallying, which usually enables you to study them well.

While an Eastern Phoebe might have been arriving to spend winter in Florida, the Eastern Wood-Pewee is a long-distance migrant, wintering in South America. Most migrate over land through Mexico, but some (maybe this one?) will fly over the Caribbean.

Pewees and phoebes are members of the tyrant flycatcher family of passerine birds. They live in North and South America and they are the largest family of birds, with more than 400 species.

In North America most species are associated with a “sallying” feeding style, where they fly up to catch an insect directly from their perch and then immediately return to the same perch.

I definitely observed that, and thought, “This bird really likes my hammock.” I hope mosquitoes were on the menu.

Wood Storks take wing

Young Wood Storks at Bird Island a few weeks ago. They have since started flying. I was out biking a lot for the first few days they were airborne. They would make a big loop out over Sewall’s Point, then return to the island to land and rest.

That’s a lot of birds.

I’m a bit behind on bird photography, as I’ve been busy with other projects. Indeed, I have promised myself to put my camera aside for the month of July at least to catch up in other areas. Then hopefully pay better attention to my camera and the birds when I take up that hobby again!

Wood Storks. Looks like the ones on the left are a bit younger. Fuzzier!

What a privilege to watch these Wood Storks growing up!

Have a lovely July and see you in August or September.

Frigatebird and osprey

Magnificent Frigatebird at Bird Island.

This is an immature frigatebird, with its white head and breast.

Frigatebirds have a favorite corner (northwest) of the mangrove island in the Indian River Lagoon. This was was coming in for a landing.

Osprey above.

Fish hawk keeping an eye out for a fish, before a spectacular dive.

Snowy egrets

Island of Many White Birds, from a recent boat trip. It’s actually Bird Island off Sewall’s Point.

There are mainly Snowy Egrets in this photo, up in the mangrove trees, both adults with yellow feet and yellow eye patches and juveniles with dull green legs.

Snowies are a bird I see fairly often, but it was special to see so many in one place, in this popular nesting and roosting spots for many birds.

Snowy Egret flyover.

What a privilege to be in a boat with a good camera and birds all around!